Sunday, September 16, 2018

Formerly the Shrine To Music Museum,
Vermillion, South Dakota
A car trip across the Rust Belt drew us to four different music museums. The first one is in Vermillion South Dakota, in a former Carnegie library on the campus of the University of South Dakota. I had been here about 25 years ago, when it was called the Shrine To Music Museum. It was basically a collection of instruments owned by Arne Larson and his family. The museum has since expanded to include everything from Johnny Cash guitars to Stradivarius and Amati stringed instruments to folk instruments from around the world, as well as keyboards going back hundreds of years.
We got here "just in time," so to speak. The museum is about to close for two years to allow for a $9 million expansion of its facility. It's a pleasantly overwhelming display which shows a lot of attention to curatorial detail.

It's basically on two floors currently. One highlight was the re-creation of a shop where guitars are made; another was the vast display of harmonicas, more than one could almost ever imagine. The craft of instrument making is highlighted throughout this museum, as well as the histories of various eras of society which called for mass production and marketing of instruments.

Downriver from the National Music Museum was a "museum" of extremely modest proportions, dedicated to one performer of historical note and largely seeming to be an outgrowth of a personal collection. This facility is in a downtown building near the Davenport, Iowa waterfront. It looks to be a typical arrangement where someone renovating a building is hosting the collection until a paying renter comes along. In the case of this town, that could be awhile, but you never know.

As per below, I was excited to see Pee Wee Russell's last set of clarinets, which appeared to be Buffet R-13s. Of particular note was the "made in France" mouthpiece with the number "5" on it. Couldn't get too close, but I am assuming that was the facing number, which would make it quite open. It never would have occurred to me that a clarinetist with such a distinctive vibrato would be using an orchestral clarinet!

With its one major subject, this collection was diligent and vivid in telling the story of a hometown boy who went on fame with Paul Whiteman and Jean Goldkette with his best buddy Frankie Trumbauer. Parts of the display were very moving in an emotional way, such a letter from Louis Armstrong, who knew Bix, and the piano from the apartment he took in New York, months before he died in his late twenties.

Eastbound from there we found ourselves at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland.



One tends to hear about this Hall of Fame mostly via the media, through the choices made to add someone or not. It's unabashedly over the top, with instruments, videos, displays that, before a couple of hours were done, had my stomach churning and tear ducts flowing with emotion. Like the Top 40 radio which started it all, this place is in a constant state of re-creation to accommodate the next generation coming up. I was blown away to see Louis Jordan's sax and his set list (40's-50's), and equally knocked out to see the awning from a club I used to go to in the 70's. It's a major kick to watch the Beatles first Ed Sullivan appearance with the screen set up right next to the Rickenbacker John Lennon was playing that night. Ditto for the Animals' drum set, logo on the bass and all, exactly the same one you see in their first Ed Sullivan appearance. This "Hall of Fame" really covers the waterfront, so to speak. It was a little nutty to see only 2 saxophones in the whole place, considering they had dozens of guitars from so many groups. The other saxophone which made me choke up a bit was Jerome "Doc" Pomus'. And I had to take a deep breath while reading the scribbles this polio victim made on the invitation to his wedding day. They were the draft lyrics to one of his many, many hit songs, "Save The Last Dance for Me."

The 4th museum on this tour was The National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame. One may assume that this facility does not exactly pick up the overflow crowds from the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, though it's not far from there. It shares a former city hall building with the Softball Hall of Fame. You're probably wondering what is Cleveland-Style polka. The answer is simple: it was made by Slovenian immigrants to Cleveland. When you think of polka popularity, the first name which comes to mind is Lawrence Welk.

Welk's parents were German immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine. You learn something new every day, and on this day I learned the origins of perhaps the second most popular polka star of the 1950s-60s, Frankie Yankovic. As an aside, my wife and I have been merchants of used vinyl records for many years, and some records you see so much at garage sales they make your head spin. Well, Columbia Recording Artist Frankie Yankovic's was one of those. Little did we know he is the exemplar of Slovenian polka in the Cleveland style. You may ask, what is a Hall of Fame with only one superstar? Well, this might not be an appropriate question for someone of Slovenian ancestry, for there are more Cleveland-style accordion families in this Hall of Fame than you could shake a bell stick at.

The revelation here, as at the Bix museum, was that with good signage and a decent number of artifacts, history can be amplified and exemplified any way the assemblers might choose. By focusing on the Slovenian community of Cleveland, this interesting Hall of Fame provides a backdrop to the American myth of the "melting pot."

In closing, I'm reminded of a museum I visited which no longer exists in its present form. The "Bob Wills Museum" (the current one is in Wills' home town of Turkey, Texas) opened during "Pioneer Days" in Fort Worth in September 1985. Upon its opening at 2404 North Main, personal tours were given by Wills' widow, Betty Anderson Wills. There was a closed, lighted room containing the desk where Betty Wills did the bookkeeping for the Texas Playboys from 1950 to 1969. On the wall were several needlepoint violins fashioned by Mrs. Wills. The desk also held a Bible. A plaque on the viewing window read, "Bob always carried a Bible."

Quite a bit of miscellaneous stuff was on display. One of Bob's fiddles from the original Wills museum in Turkey, Texas. A Steinberg upright piano, bought by Texas Playboy Al Stricklin's father in 1910 for $85.

Several videos showed Wills' on film and TV. Before the days of Youtube they re-lived the excitement of Wills' personality, and his estimable contributions to Western Swing music, including the genre's decline during the 1960s.

The Fort Worth Stockyards, with its nostalgia for the days of meat packing and trail riding, was a good location, and one of the initial backers, David Stallings, had provided the impetus for the Wills family to rent a space there. The Bob Wills Museum in Fort Worth is long gone but that hasn't affected the popularity of Bob Wills and Western Swing music. The classic sounds, derived from the confluence of big band and country fiddle music in the 1930s,survive in many musical groups today, and in the hearts of the myriad former Texas Playboys who came and went from the band, many now in their 90's, who are still performing as I write this.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

It's been about 1 1/2 years since I self published my first studio album, Boston Nashville. Since I have all the material ready for a second album, I can sum up the experience with the first one.
It started with one song, Cannabis. I approached a highly respected Nashville saxophone artist, Jay Patten. We shared the same Italian surname, and the same ancestral town in Italy, Avellino. Other than that, we had no common relatives that we could trace. I knew I loved his work for his album "Impressions of Christmas."
We started the album at his home studio. He cast the artists for the song "Cannabis." They are some of Nashville's greats. One phrase in the song, "stoners pride," puzzled the singers a bit. It's one of those phrases that makes people call my songs "weird." To me it was natural. Stoners obtained their supplies at risks not known to a legal generation. Their risks were also not known to a consumer generation. People used to government endorsement, regulation, and protection would not understand "stoners pride." Stoners paved the way.
But all my songs are weird in different ways.
Several session in Nashville, at Jay's home studio, helped me shape the album. Jay himself was a big influence. He is very busy with his own material so I was imposing on him. But it seemed to work out.
When I got home to New England I made a cold call to record the rest of the material. I subbed for Billy Novick on a gig once and met some Boston musicians. One of them said he had a studio. I contacted him and recorded the rest of the material at his studio.
I called the album Boston Nashville because the city names reflect the styles. The Boston material was arrangements I wrote out. The Nashville material was arrangements worked out on the spot.
When it was finished I hired a company to promote Boston Nashville to college radio. They had me send them 300 CDs. Most of them are now available on That's what happens to promotional CDs. They charged a lot of money for shipping these CDs out to college radio stations. The reaction from college DJs was insignificant. Except for one station. There was a college radio station in New Britain CT which played Boston Nashville very aggressively. I never learned why. They kept various tracks from the album on the air for an entire semester. The only college station in the USA to really adopt Boston Nashville upon its release. To this day it's a mystery to me. No one in that city remembers me, even though it's my home town. The college that played the album was an influence on me. I saw the Four Seasons, my favorite band, at Welte Hall there. I got high for the first time with a college DJ there. But this was a long time ago.
Other than that, I've sold and given away my album at gigs where I've played. I have heard a few polite comments in return. Perhaps a half dozen people have taken the effort to say how the album affected them.
I'm so grateful, because I know that the songs, the arrangements, everything about the album is as unique as I could make it, and I'm amazed with the musicians and engineers who put up with me to record it the way I wanted it.
After all this effort, I can be a confident that a couple dozen listeners have really enjoyed Boston Nashville. Thousands of people have heard me play covers, and thousands of dancers, listeners, club patrons, etc. have heard me support bands, piano players, accordion players, etc., over many years, with my horn playing. But this has not translated to any fans for my original music.
Now that I have another album's worth of material, already posted on soundcloud, reverbnation, etc., it becomes apparent that I'm an "outsider artist." I think that's code for someone who has no popularity.
I think the effort I put in must have been based on the "merit system," that good stuff will get attention. There was a mistake with this idea. It needed fans. It needed people who heard "Boston Nashville" to pass along their enthusiasm to friends, who would pass it along to others. And gradually, one song or another would go viral.
No sign of that happening.
I'm not disappointed. I'm my own biggest fan. From the minute I started writing stuff in 7th or 8th grade, I've been thrilled by what I do. It keeps getting better, just like I planned. The new songs are as good or better than anything on Boston Nashville. When I run out of ideas, I'll post to that effect.